Taps Coogan – November 24th, 2020
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Back in 2018, Congressional Republicans toyed with the idea of ending a self-imposed ban earmarking and pork-barrel spending. At the time, I published this article condemning the short-lived idea. Today, Democrats in the House are planning to bring back earmarking and pork-barrel spending once again.
Below is the crux of what I wrote in 2018, minimally updated for today:
Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) define earmarking as spending which is:
“Requested by only one chamber of Congress”
“Not specifically authorized”
“Not competitively awarded”
“Not requested by the President”
“Greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding”
“Not the subject of congressional hearings”
“Serves only a local or special interest”
As one might expect from such an overtly corrupt practice, the projects that have resulted from earmarking are infamously wasteful and misguided. There was the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’ a proposal for a $233 million bridge to a town of 50 people in Alaska. There was $3.4 million to build a tunnel for turtles under a highway in Florida. There was $1.3 million to a museum dedicated to Pacific Northwest naval heritage. There was $1.9 million for a water taxi service at Pleasure Beach, CT, presumably near some Congress member’s home. There was $465 million for ‘continued development of an obsolete fighter engine’ that was determined by independent review groups to be completely unnecessary but happened to be made in some Congress member’s state. There was $7.2 million requested by Senator Tom Harkin to go to the self-named Harkin Grant Program. Then there was $7 million requested by Senator Robert C. Byrd for the Robert C. Byrd Institute of Advanced Flexible Manufacturing systems. Can anyone spot the conflict of interest there? $17 million went to the International Fund for Ireland for some unknown reason. There was half-a-million dollars to build a Teapot Museum in North Carolina. The list goes on, and on, and on. One can fill pages with equally absurd examples of corruption and waste.
The national outrage over earmarks contributed to the rise of the Tea Party, to the Republican takeover of Congress, and to a 2010 self-imposed ban on earmarking.
Ten years later, Congress is hoping that Americans have forgotten how corrupt and wasteful earmarking was. From the looks of it, some Americans have. The Washington Post published this in support of a return to earmarking back in 2018:
“For most of American history, a principal goal of any member of Congress was to bring home bacon for his district. Pork-barrel spending never really cost very much, and it helped glue Congress together by giving members a kind of currency to trade: You support my pork, and I’ll support yours. Also, because pork was dispensed by powerful appropriations committees with input from senior congressional leaders, it provided a handy way for the leadership to buy votes and reward loyalists.”
Bloomberg similarly published this piece in support of earmarking, noting:
“One person’s pork-barrel spending is another’s public good, but think of earmarks as local benefits inserted into bills to buy more votes in Congress. That sounds bad, but in a fraught, polarized time it could be exactly what the U.S. government needs.”
“In essence, earmarks give congressional leaders more control over individual members. Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock and gives extreme members of Congress something to pursue other than just ideology… Besides, you don’t have to think of earmarks as bribes or corruption in every case.”
Why would we ever permit a system that allowed bribes or corruption in any case?
First and foremost the idea that earmarking, while wasteful, did not contribute significantly to the federal deficit is an outright lie. In 2006 before political pressure started to focus attention on earmarking, the corrupt practice wasted $29 billion in just one year, over 11% of the entire 2006 Federal deficit and nearly the same amount spent on the national Food Stamps program that year ($31 billion). In other words, Congress spent roughly the same amount on their own bribes in 2006 as they spent on food aid for America’s poor. And 2006 was no anomaly; it is estimated that $261 billion was squandered via earmarking between 1991 and 2006.
The farcical idea that the best solution to gridlock in Congress is to re-establish a system of wasteful and corrupting bribes detested by Americans of every political stripe is cynical and undemocratic. As we noted here, the current batch of Congress members is nearly the oldest, most incumbent, and least popular in history. It is of little surprise that bringing back earmarks is the best idea they can come up with to solve the problem of gridlock.
Instead of permitting members of Congress to bribe each other in order to get poorly crafted and unpopular legislation through Congress more quickly, perhaps Americans should simply replace the current batch of Senators and Representatives in both parties with ones that are sincerely interested in and capable of reforming the widely unpopular institution.
It was true in 2018 and it is true today.
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